By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers, is a rookie, and she admits she made some rookie mistakes.
During this past legislative session, her self-described rookie-ness got in her way as she tried to pass a bill that would have required legislative and statewide candidates to file campaign finance reports online in a searchable database. It failed in the House, 48-33, with 19 not voting, and never made it to the Senate.
Arkansas is one of 17 states where legislators have the option of electronically filing those reports, or to file by paper. At least 31 states require electronic reports.
Why does it matter? Filing reports by paper makes it harder for voters to follow the money trail. They can see the reports online at the secretary of state’s website, votenaturally.com, but only in document form. They can’t do a search to learn who is donating to more than one candidate, and how much.
True, it’s possible to print out every legislative report and wade through the information. But that would take an enormous amount of time that few people have – not we in the media who also must cover other news, and certainly not the average Joe citizen.
That information is important – certainly more important than what’s on candidates’ websites. The type of donors who give to multiple candidates are doing so because they want something. Not necessarily a bad thing, but something.
I could be naive, but I think most elected officials at the Capitol imperfectly are trying to do mostly the right thing most of the time – just like the rest of us when we’re put into gray-area situations with conflicting influences. But no matter how noble they are, they can’t ignore the people whose donations made it possible for them to be elected.
Because campaigning is a for-profit enterprise, money will flow to political candidates like water flows downhill. The most effective reform is to shine as much light as possible on the process. That way, voters can determine for themselves which elected officials are navigating an imperfect system appropriately, and which ones are being overly influenced by donors.
Back to the rookie. Della Rosa said one of the mistakes she made this past legislative session was idealistically focusing only on how the system would benefit the public when lobbying her fellow legislators, which is not the best way to change someone’s personal behavior. If she’s re-elected in 2016, she’ll push a complete redo of the system that will make campaigning easier for them.
Filing campaign finance reports is a huge pain in the neck. It’s very easy to make an honest mistake, and then an elected official finds his or her name in a headline alongside the words “ethics violation.” The current electronic filing system is kind of glitchy. So Della Rosa is promising an e-filing system that will be easier to navigate and will prompt and warn candidates to keep them out of undeserved trouble.
Implementation costs have averaged $500,000 to $2 million per state, but perhaps Arkansas could purchase a system already used elsewhere. Yes, that’s an expense, but it would be worth it to be able to follow the money.
Della Rosa outlined her proposal Nov. 19 before a legislative subcommittee that certainly seemed ready to embrace it. At least, no one was willing to speak publicly against more transparency. Sen. John Cooper, R-Jonesboro, another rookie legislator, was particularly ready to march alongside her.
One of the objections legislators raised earlier this year was that some candidates live in areas without adequate broadband internet access. So she brought along Shelby Johnson, director of the Arkansas Geographic Information Systems Office, who said the entire state is covered by satellite internet service and that a large part of it is covered by other services, particularly wireless. In other words, no one must travel that far to find internet service capable of uploading a simple document.
By 2017, another two years will have passed where some legislators who weren’t comfortable with the internet will become more so, or will be replaced by someone who is. No doubt some legislative opponents don’t particularly want their campaign donors known, but fear of change is often the biggest hurdle any salesperson must overcome. If Della Rosa is still in office, she’ll be able to make an offer that will be hard to refuse – a system that benefits both voters and candidates.